Free State: 89.8%
Gauteng: 86%
Western Cape: 84.4%
North West: 82.1%
Northern Cape: 77.6%
KwaZulu- Natal:73.6%
Limpopo: 67.4%
Eastern Cape:65.8%

The above, in another country or in another reality might have had the nation celebrate from the rooftops that the future was assured with so many young people producing spectacular results indicating a highly literate and numerate young nation. “Once again, I take my hat off to the Class of 2017, and I wish them the best in their future. I believe that you will continue to shine wherever you are”, said the Minister in a public statement. Minister Motshekga’s Alice-esque announcements failed to impress a cynical public.

The sad reality belies the numbers above. The real pass rate, taking into account the almost 50% dropout, was closer to 37%, despite Minister Mokshekga’s huff and puff about year on year matric pass rate increases. The stark difference in numbers is mostly a result of a serious and perhaps deliberate distortion of throughput by students from early in the system, i.e. numbers of students who drop out along the way with many failing to reach matric and or not taking the exam for lack of preparedness.

The Department of Basic Education’s Director of Exams, Priscilla Okubanjo, stated in a pre-exam press release that a total of 798 289 full and part time students would sit for the 2017 exams, 37 838 fewer than that of 2016. No plausible explanation was offered to explain why this was the case, in a demographic band that is growing and not shrinking in South Africa.

Many education researchers and advocates like Equal Education were more strident in proffering its views on the 2017 matric results. Equal Education described the “matric pass percentage as a superficial and misleading indicator of public education quality. The pass rate reflects only the performance of those learners who managed to stay in school for 12 years and obscures how many dropped out along the way”. To get a grip on the real vs the manufactured, one must look at the following: Of the almost one million learners who entered grade 2, just close to 600 000 registered for matric in 2017 and about 534 000 sat for the exams. This puts a dropout rate at close to 45% of total enrolments. This is a staggering figure by most standards and its domino effect on the long-term prospects for the country is dire.

Quality education with concomitant outcomes form the bedrock of vibrant, cohesive and growing societies and its converse entrenches inequality and social discontent. The latter well describes South Africa twenty-three years into democracy. Straight up global measures and local findings confirm that in terms of maths, science, numeracy and literacy the trends have moved backwards with a 2016 study revealing that at least 78% of Grade 4 learners in the country are functionally illiterate. This is an indictment with a price that will be paid for dearly.

A crucial study was published in November 2017 proffering a detailed understanding of the nexus between access to quality education and the advancement of social mobility for the country’s most vulnerable citizens. A Society Divided-How unequal education quality limits social mobility in South Africa, by the Department of Economics at the University of Stellenbosch, makes the critical point that, “The majority of South Africans learners essentially follow a learning trajectory that ultimately leads to poor access to tertiary education and poor labour market outcomes, which in turn perpetuate a cycle of desperation for generations to come that is almost impossible to escape from through the education system in its current state. The persistence of deep inequality two decades after apartheid is a powerful indictment of the South African education system’s failure to overcome past injustices, despite considerable shifts in government spending to poor schools. It is therefor of utmost importance that South African addresses inequalities in educational opportunity as early as possible to promote social mobility for the poor”.

The main findings of the Report reiterate what many have written of and which ails the education system in South Africa, including the following:

• Education quality is still poor;
• Large and early learning gaps exist;
• Importance of post-matric education;
• Centrality of school quality and
• Unmet Expectations.

It is the last mentioned that deserves pause for reflection. The role of quality education in social mobility and access to economic opportunities is profound and necessary to stymie the perpetuation of inter-generational inequality. There is the broadest consensus across the country that for a government that spends the largest item of its budget on basic education, the results are abysmal. There is no way to spin the issue. An honest glare in the mirror is needed lest we fail more young people. An alert, educated, curious and economically robust population of young people is a vital sinew to realising the dream of a country that prizes human dignity, equality, freedom, tolerance and national unity. A restive youth will corrode this dream.

The imperative to build a reconciled South Africa and dismantle the political, economic and social culture created by a corrupt leadership, is vital as it is the time to renew the pursuit of shared values, including that of access to quality education for all.

By Zohra Dawood:Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity